Jared Diamond’s Collapse traces the fates of societies to their treatment of the environment
I will always think of Jared Diamond as the man who, for the better part of the late 1990s, somehow made the phrase “east-west axis of orientation” the most talked-about kind of orientation there was — freshman, sexual, or otherwise. His 1997 Pulitzer Prize-winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies began with a simple question — “Why did Pizarro conquer the Incas and not the other way around?” — and then managed to tell, over the course of only 400-odd pages, the history of why humanity has turned out the way it has. For most readers (and there were millions), Guns was their first exposure to theories of geographic determinism. To broadly simplify, Diamond’s book posited that human populations on continents with a primarily east-west orientation benefited from a more consistent climate and therefore developed more quickly than those living on continents with a north-south orientation. It had the kind of paradigm-shifting impact that happens with a book only once every few years, and it turned Diamond — a professor of geography at UCLA — into something of a rock star.
If Guns venerated the role that geographic chance played in societal development, Diamond’s newest book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, restores human agency to the picture. Through a grab bag of case studies that range from the Mayan Empire to modern China, Diamond tries to distill a unified theory about why societies fail or succeed. He identifies five factors that contribute to collapse: climate change, hostile neighbors, trade partners (that is, alternative sources of essential goods), environmental problems, and, finally, a society’s response to its environmental problems. The first four may or may not prove significant in each society’s demise, Diamond claims, but the fifth always does. The salient point, of course, is that a society’s response to environmental problems is completely within its control, which is not always true of the other factors. In other words, as his subtitle puts it, a society can “choose to fail.”
Diamond then identifies the 12 environmental problems that are portents of doom: destruction of natural habitats (mainly through deforestation); reduction of wild foods; loss of biodiversity; erosion of soil; depletion of natural resources; pollution of freshwater; maximizing of natural photosynthetic resources; introduction by humans of toxins and alien species; artificially induced climate change; and, finally, overpopulation and its impact.
These issues, which dovetail neatly with the flashpoints of the modern environmental movement, will be familiar enough to readers of Grist. But while the factors that Diamond believes lead societies to collapse may be clear, his definitions of both “society” and “collapse” are less so. “Collapse” can refer to complete extinction (Pitcairn Island), population crash (Easter Island), resettlement (Vikings), civil war (Rwanda), anarchy (Somalia, Haiti), or even just the demise of a political ideology (the disintegration of the Soviet Union). His definition of “society” is equally vague; he variously uses it to refer to a settlement (e.g., various Viking communities), a nation (ranging from Rwanda and Haiti, two of the smaller countries in the world, to China, one of the largest), a state (Montana), and an island (Easter). Each individual example makes sense, but as analogues — to each other or to the situation in today’s globalized world — they often falter.
The best examples in Collapse are those that avoid this apples-and-oranges problem by comparing two societies at the same moment in time and in the same place, such as the chapters on the Greenland Norse and on Hispaniola. In the case of the Vikings, as one historian said, they came to Greenland, “it got cold, and then they died.” But somehow, Diamond rejoins, the Greenland Inuit came, stayed, and survived — right up until this day. The point? Cold or not, the Greenland Norse didn’t have to die. Diamond elucidates how they mistreated their environment (without even realizing it in some cases) and refused to adapt to its variations. The Vikings, Diamond notes in his customary casual style, had a “bad attitude” and thought the Inuit were “gross weirdos.” As a result, they didn’t adapt to the Greenland environment as the Inuit did, and, eventually, starved to death.
Although it’s the chapter on Greenland that has thus far won the most acclaim, Diamond’s treatment of contemporary Hispaniola might be more relevant to the complexities of today’s world. Two countries share the island — the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Their resources, climate, religion, and history as colonies are markedly similar. And yet, their current situations couldn’t be more divergent. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Only 1 percent of its land is covered in forest, compared to 28 percent in the D.R. While the D.R. is by no means rich, its economy continues to grow, its environment is protected, and it reaps the benefits of munificent relations with the international community. In Haiti, there are too many people, too few resources, too few jobs, and, at the moment, scarcely a government. Diamond argues that the proximate cause of collapse in a society like Haiti — a coup d’état or a flood resulting from a hurricane, for instance — is only a manifestation of the ultimate cause: the mismanagement of its environment and resources.
These days, many Haitians — and indeed much of the rest of the developing world — face a stark choice: protecting the environment or eating. If it weren’t for foreign aid, Haiti could never support its population. And while the D.R. is a magnificent success by comparison, it’s important not to underestimate the similar tension it faces between the forces of development and the fight for environmental preservation. The difference is that the D.R.’s leaders and citizen-activists had the foresight to protect their environment before it was beyond repair.
This is an essential issue in Collapse, because Diamond’s goal in historicizing our understanding of the relationship between a society’s development and its environment is to prove that the two impulses are not antithetical. Much as Guns, Germs, and Steel was crafted in part as a response to books like The Bell Curve, which had managed to repopularize theories of racial determinism, Collapse is partly a response to the dominant environmental discourse in the United States today, which holds that environmental concerns are secondary to economic and security concerns. Rather, Diamond argues, environmental concerns are at least equal in importance, and inextricably linked, to all other aspects of a society’s success. His examples imply that, when it comes to the environment, a stitch in time means more than saving nine — it’s the difference between keeping and losing your shirt.
Don’t Give Away the Ending …
Collapse is a long book, and because Diamond is a guileless writer, you understand right from the introduction why he thinks societies falter, and to a certain extent what he thinks we should do about it. If you take it as a given that Diamond will prove his thesis (and I’m certainly not suggesting that you should), you could read the introduction and the last few chapters and get the point. But then you’d miss out on what Jared Diamond does best: tell stories.
Like Guns, much of Collapse is propelled by a quasi-Socratic question-and-answer style. The questions are sometimes obvious (“How did so many societies make such bad mistakes?”), sometimes poignant (“What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?” “Did he shout ‘Jobs, not trees!'” Diamond wonders), sometimes charmingly pointy-headed (“Which year did he go there and in which month? Did he find any stored hay or cheese left?”). The larger ones establish the contours of the book, while the smaller ones fill in the details that render what could be a tedious tome delightful: the fact that 1816 had no summer due to a volcanic eruption in Indonesia, say, or that there are only 578 U.S. college students studying mining. But there are also the meatier details of Diamond’s profession: how to carbon date, how to read tree rings, and, in a hilarious example of mad science, how to date the middens of packrats. (Packrat middens, in case you don’t know, are urine balls that, even thousands of years after they’re excreted, still taste surprisingly sweet. Yes, taste.)
Diamond’s sense of humor and eye for detail breathe life into people, places, and subjects that are foreign to most readers. He’s always been good at this — he can take a community of Easter islanders who’ve been dead for hundreds of years and make them sound like your next-door neighbors. So when Diamond makes a case study of the people who actually are his next-door neighbors — the residents of Montana’s Bitterroot Valley — his analysis is particularly compelling.
When Diamond first visited Montana 50 years ago, it was one of the most prosperous and environmentally pristine states in the U.S. Today, it’s one of the poorest, with a grim environmental outlook. Global warming, leach mining, tourism, and libertarian values knock heads in a particularly violent way under the Big Sky. From dairy owners and politicians to mine workers and militia members to wealthy Californians who daytrip to Montana in their private jets, Diamond describes a community of such diverse and conflicting interests that miracles are more likely to solve its problems than any kind of compromise.
The trouble is, Montana’s problems have to be solved. Its glaciers are disappearing, many of its mines are polluting the land and water, and its old industries — farming, mining, and ranching — are bordering on extinction. But the old guard has one idea of what to do about it, the new billionaire landowners another, the farmers another, the miners another, the teachers another, and so on. Diamond has fewer hard and fast answers about what should be done in Montana — the place he knows best — than he does about any other case study.
Whether such profound clashes can be resolved, Diamond argues, comes down to that great buzzword of 2004: values. He suggests that the “bad attitude” label that he used for the Vikings could be applied to the libertarian streak in Montanans, the inability of U.S. citizens to learn from past events like, say, the 1973 fuel crisis, and, notably, the reluctance of environmentalists to engage the proponents of business development. “Perhaps the crux of success or failure of a society is to know which core values to hold onto, and which ones to discard and replace with new values,” Diamond writes. In many ways, the main point of Collapse is to get us to assess the environmental impact of our values — whatever they are — and do something about the ones that don’t work.
The examples Diamond cites where this has actually happened provide the grace notes to Collapse — moments when the book becomes less about failure and more about how a society might beat the odds and come out on top. For instance, Diamond devotes a large section of his conclusion to outlining examples of successful collaborations between corporations and environmentalists. If these examples sometimes seem rather rosy, that might be part of Diamond’s plan. “My motivation is the practical one of identifying what changes would be most effective in inducing companies that currently harm the environment to spare it instead,” he writes. To that end, he saves some of his sharpest tongue-lashing for average citizens, who could put more pressure on lawmakers, on corporations, and on themselves (mostly in the form of taxes) to clip the fuse of the environmental time bombs. In a world where public companies are legally required to maximize their profits, the burden is on citizens to make it unprofitable to ruin the environment — for an individual, a company, or a society as a whole.
For Diamond, there is no project more urgent facing the world today. Late in the book, he puts two maps of the world side by side. One map highlights today’s environmental trouble spots, the other highlights political trouble spots. The two maps are identical, and seem to provide striking visual proof of Diamond’s thesis: poor environmental management leads to violent conflict and the brink of collapse. Of course, it would be easy to fill a map with politically stable nations that are suffering from environmental troubles (China, the U.S., and Australia, to use some of Diamond’s own case studies from the book), and there are places of conflict where environmental troubles are not a significant issue — Kosovo and Northern Ireland come to mind. Diamond’s tendency to present his theories in overly neat packages like these makes Collapse occasionally feel like a game of Sim Society. You might reasonably find yourself thinking, “If I planted just enough forests and remembered to eat my fish and not let my sheep graze for too long, I could be as successful as the Inuit or the shoguns of Japan (barring Godzilla), and would never succumb to the fate of the Vikings or contemporary Rwanda.” Considering that Edward Gibbon spent over a thousand pages on the fall of Rome alone, it’s easy to see how Diamond’s 20-to-40 page thumbnails on societies’ declines can seem like caricatures.
It’s small soft spots like these maps that have led some critics to call Diamond a fearmonger. But Collapse is more warning than prophecy, and the sheer number of examples Diamond provides — dozens of versions of what might happen, because it already has — is what gives the book its admonitory power. Even if its disparate stories never perfectly meld into one convincing argument, the scope of the work is breathtaking. And if I read Diamond’s ambitions right, he’d rather Collapse be read as an imperfect call to action than a perfect work of airtight logic. Ultimately, the proof of Collapse‘s value will not lie in the book itself, but in what people are inspired to do after reading it.
Get Grist in your inbox